For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)
The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.
For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.
Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul
After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.
On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.
All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.
Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.
Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read. The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!
Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky, a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.
It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.
In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.
However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that:
There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.
Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:
Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)
Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.
Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:
What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)
And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)
Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.
Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.
Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably. … It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.
pp. 123 & 166
I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.
So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.
The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:
I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.
This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.
Eggshell Skull, published in 2018 by Allen & Unwin, is a memoir that peels back layers of personal and societal abuse, as seen by the author in her first year as a Judge’s Associate, and throughout her own foray into the legal system as a complainant.
If you or someone close to you has had contact with the police or courts in Australia, either as defendant or complainant, you will relate to much of Bri’s story. Many years ago, I survived a bitter drawn out dispute in the Family Court. Loud bells of recognition jangled in my head as I read Bri’s descriptions of the powerlessness, despair and frustration she experienced during her own ‘journey’ through complex legal processes. She had the advantage of familiarity with at least some of the jargon and steps involved in bringing a matter to court, having completed a law degree and worked as a Judge’s Associate for a year—insight which most of don’t have access to.
Ironically, it was precisely that experience so early in her working life that led her to bring forward her own complaint. After travelling with her Judge on court circuits to Queensland country towns and regional centres, and hearing case after case of rape, sexual assault, and child abuse—not all of which were resolved in the complainants’ favour—something tipped inside her. She began to recognise that her conflicted feelings about her chosen profession, her disturbing memories of an episode of childhood sexual abuse by a teenage friend of her brother, her negative self-image and episodes of self-harm, were all connected.
‘Since puberty I had accepted…that I wasn’t worth anything; that the ugly thing was ever-present inside me. That it was the dark truth, a rotten core, and that the smiling daytime Bri was the façade. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that so many of the feelings I struggled with are perfectly normal for abuse and trauma survivors.’
She decided to do something about it.
So began her transformation from wearing the robes of a Judge’s Associate, to entering a police station and court house wearing the everyday clothes of a complainant. She experienced the labyrinthine, slow passage of legal matters from complaint to trial and sentencing—and the many points along the way at which the matter can be deemed not serious enough or unlikely to be brought to trial and so dropped from the lists. The cliché ‘roller-coaster ride’ barely suggests the emotional highs and lows someone experiences at these times. Small vignettes, like the painful process of making her initial and later statements to a police officer whose two-fingered typing meant the ordeal was dragged out much longer than it needed to be, increasing her discomfort, are details that brought me right into her experience. I was there with Bri, wanting to shout hurry up! at the slow typing officer. The way the defendant delayed matters endlessly by not showing up or having tasks completed on time, became another form of abuse.
…I’d felt totally powerless…Samuel in control again. He was taking up my time, my energy, my life. Calls about the case invaded my beautiful home. Reminders of the next mention invaded my mind when I slept. So long as the legal process continued I would be the complainant—and every two, three or four weeks, I would be reminded of that. Reminded that I was just the girl, reminded of being pushed on my back, belly-up, frozen.
On top of all that is the added layer of social attitudes towards women who make allegations of rape or other sexual assaults or abuse. How can they be believed? Does their use of the contraceptive pill while not in a steady relationship imply they are sexually promiscuous? Are their memories of childhood abuse accurate or are they imagining it? Unlike other crimes, there is often no ‘hard’ evidence of crimes of a sexual nature, especially historical crimes. So there are plenty of holes into which these matters can, and often do, fall.
The title, Eggshell
Skull, refers to a common legal rule that a defendant must ‘take his victims
as they find them.’ (p.v) If, for
example, a victim of a punch dies because of an existing medical condition, the
person who threw the punch is still responsible for their death. When her
matter is resolved, Bri Lee finds herself reflecting that the rule works both
ways. If a perpetrator of abuse decides to fight the allegations in court, and
finds the complainant more determined, braver, better supported by family and
friends than he’d expected, well…that’s his problem, not hers.
This memoir is an interesting read in the context of the Me Too movement, in which women all over the world began to call out male sexual abuse for what it is and took action to stop it. Bri Lee’s eggshell skull is perhaps one part of that worldwide picture.
I was introduced to the character of Cilka Klein in Heather Morris’ first, best selling book The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Morris, New Zealand born but now living in Australia, met Lale Sokolov and told his story of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. Cilka appears in Lake’s story because in 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 16 and beautiful and chosen by one of the camp’s Nazi commandants to perform a role that was essentially to be his sex slave. She survived Auschwitz- Birkenau and Cilka’sJourney opens with the liberation of the camp in 1945.
Now 19, Cilka can scarcely believe her ordeal is over and as it turns out, fate deals her a cruel hand. Instead of being given her freedom, she is charged by the Russians for the crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy.’ Once more she is herded onto a railroad truck along with women of all ages and many nationalities, to endure an arduous journey north – to the prison camp of Vorkuta, inside Siberia’s Arctic Circle.
The conditions she faces there are appalling. Prisoners, men and women alike, are forced to labour in the freezing conditions of the coal mine there. They sleep at night in huts with only one blanket each for warmth and a single bucket for a toilet. Meals are a thin watery gruel. Much of this is a repeat of Cilka’s experiences at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
To add to their degradation, the women are subjected to brutal attacks by male prisoners, who regularly force their way into the huts and assault and rape who they please.
The theme of rape – as a weapon of war, as a tool to pacify male prisoners, as a threat to ensure compliance by women – is starkly presented. A horrifying fact of a horrifying life. Cilka, after all, is in this second prison camp because the repeated tapes she endured at the hands of a Nazi officer are seen by Russian authorities as evidence of ‘fraternisation’ and collaboration with an enemy. She is Czech, not Russian, but subject to the laws of the then USSR. And so on top of the three years in a Nazi camp she spends another eight long years of a fifteen year sentence in Vorkuta until her early release after Stalin’s death.
Morris has received some criticism for her telling of Lale’s and now Cilka’s stories. However she maintains that she was not trying to tell the Holocaust story or the Russian gulag story: rather the stories of two individuals. Also, Cilka’s Journey is fiction, though fiction inspired by the story as told to her by Lale Sokolov, recollections of female prisoners of Russian camps of this era, and by research in Germany, Slovakia and Russia. A lengthy author’s note makes clear the line between historical fact and fiction and an additional information section gives more detail about the Russian prison camp system.
The story is beautifully told. It is tragic, frequently harrowing, but also a compassionate and sensitive examination of the depths and heights that humans can reach, and the varying ways in which people respond to circumstances which are to modern minds, unimaginable. It’s also a story of friendship, strength and survival.
After reading this book I will never hear the quip ‘Sent to Siberia’ in quite the same way again.
Cilka’s Journey was published in October 2019. I heard the Audio version which was narrated by Louise Brealey and published by Macmillan Audio.
Happy New Year lovely readers. I do hope 2020 treats you kindly and you give and receive love in abundance – because that’s the thing that we all need in great quantities. Every single one of us.
In addition, the readers among us need books! Perhaps you have added some new books to your shelves: Christmas gifts, or books borrowed from your local library or a friend, or ones you have bought yourself. Like you, I’m looking forward to another year of great reads.
In 2020, I am signing up to three reading ‘Challenges’. I like to do this to motivate me to expand my reading repertoire and discover authors and books I might not otherwise know about.
The first is one I’ve participated in for the past couple of years – the Australian Women Writers Challenge, now in its ninth year. The #aww2020 Challenge aims to increase the number of reviews of works by women authors in this country. So far it is having great success, if the published review statistics are anything to go by, improving the ratio of reviews of works by male and female authors to near equal.
From the AWW blog:
The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.
For 2020, I’m selecting the ‘Franklin’ challenge, which means I aim to read ten books by Australian women authors, and review at least six. Given that the majority of books I read in 2019 were by Australian women, I’m feeling pretty confident!
The second challenge for 2020 is the Nonfiction Reader Challenge, which is a new one for me. I’ve chosen to participate in this one because I’ve always thought of myself as mainly a fiction reader, but lately I’ve enjoyed many more nonfiction titles. Some of these were books chosen by members of my book group, others ones I gravitated to myself – mostly in the areas of history, memoir or biography. So, why not set myself a challenge to read more?
For this one, I’ve chosen the ‘Nonfiction Nibbler’ level, in which the aim is to read 6 books, from any category, which are:
1. Memoir 2. Disaster Event 3. Social Science 4. Related to an Occupation 5. History 6. Feminism 7. Psychology 8. Medical Issue 9. Nature 10. True Crime 11. Science 12. Published in 2020
The third challenge overlaps a bit with the others- the 2020 Aussie Readers Challenge, which aims to
Showcase the quality and diversity of books by Australian authors.
I’ve opted for the ‘Kangaroo’ level. This means I will aim to read 12 books by Australian authors, at least 4 by female and 4 by male authors and at least 4 by authors new to me, and across 3 different genres.
So, there are my reading challenges for the next twelve months.
Do you like to set reading (or other) challenges for yourself? Do you find it helpful to do so? Let me know in the comments what your best challenges have been, or the ones you look forward to in 2020.
In the past year I have read around 53 books. This year, for the first time, I tried to make a record of each book I read (or in the case of audiobooks, listened to). However I do have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve inadvertently left a few off the list.
Of the 53 titles I did record, 39 were by Australian authors, and of those, 32 were by Australian women. No doubt this is at least partly due to my natural lean toward reading books by women, and also my commitment to reviewing books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Some of the books on my list this year were read for the book group I belong to, others for research and background for my own writing project, and the rest were books recommended or just ones that held an interest for me. As usual for me, the majority were fiction with a few nonfiction titles in the mix.
Intriguing, inspirational and engrossing memoir: Educated by Tara Westover, Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie and The Girls by Chloe Hooper: four very different stories told in unique voices.
Oh, it’s hard to choose a few favourites from a long list of books read. A bit like choosing a favourite chocolate! There were so many great books this year.
What’s on my To Be Read list for 2020? I plan to keep reading and reviewing plenty of books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ll read twelve titles for my book group (one choice for each of the group members). I’ll no doubt get through plenty of historical fiction, as I always like a good portion of historical fiction in my reading diet. I believe Sulari Gentill and Pamela Freeman both have new historical fiction titles to be released in 2020 so I look forward to those. And I’m sure that a few crime books will land on my TBR pile, too.
And now, to you: what have been your stand-out titles for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (I love sharing fave book lists)
And your TBR list: do you have a pile ready for holiday reading or to get started on in the New Year? Whatever direction your choices take you, I wish you a happy new reading year and hope that through books, you’ll discover new places, different times and interesting people.
As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time
tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the
buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to
them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning
its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering
strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be
like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and
scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt. ‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed. ‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow. ‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’ ‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too,
don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a
hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at
these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my
eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room
every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the
pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs
drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone. ‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
Tara Moss is a Australian-Canadian author of many bestselling books, including the non fiction titles Speaking Out and The Fictional Woman, and her crime fiction and paranormal series. She is also a journalist, former model, documentary maker and presenter. In 2015 she was a recipient of an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children. Oh, and she is UNICEF national ambassador for child survival. Probably all this keeps her pretty busy.
Luckily for lovers of crime and historical fiction, she has found time to begin a new series that is a happy marriage of the two. Dead Man Switch (published 2019 by Harper Collins) is the first in the Billie Walker series and features a terrific new female protagonist. Billie is a ‘PI’ (Private Inquiry agent) who returns to Sydney at the end of WWII to re-open her deceased father’s agency. She is stylish and courageous and, I was happy to note, compassionate.
Her experiences as a journalist, following the events of the war in Europe, have left her with some difficult memories and current challenges, not least of which is her photographer husband, Jack, who disappeared on a mission towards the end of the war and has been missing since. Also, Billie needs to make a living, which she does by taking on cases for people needing evidence of spousal infidelity in order to get a divorce – hardly satisfying work. So when she is approached by a woman to find her missing 17 year old son, Billie jumps at the chance of getting her teeth into a challenging case.
And challenging it proves to be. The sinister tentacles of the murderous Nazis have found their way to Australia and Billie gets caught up in a much bigger and nastier plot than she could have expected.
The author weaves a whole lot of history into the fabric of her story. Social history (the return of women to the home after having done important jobs during the war, changing fashions, the lingering effects of wartime rationing), events of the war (the shocking cruelties of the Nazi concentration camps), the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people during the period, and attitudes to women, are all encapsulated in a vivid portrayal of post war Australia and the world.
I was especially thrilled when the action moved to my own territory: the Blue Mountains including Katoomba, Mt Victoria, Colo, Bilpin (where I grew up) and Richmond. It’s not often I read about these places in contemporary fiction, so that was fun!
The plot has enough twists to keep a reader turning the page, and some interesting and likeable characters: Sam (Billie’s assistant), her mother Eva and Eva’s ‘ladies’ maid/companion’, women police officers (very unusual at that time), and a courageous young Aboriginal woman who I hope to see more of in future books in the series.
Dead Man Switch introduces a new player in the Australian historical crime genre. It’s a little noir, though Billie is certainly no Sam Spade – thank goodness. She’s very human and relatable even while up to her stylish hat in adventure. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.
fourW is one of Australia’s longest running annual anthologies of new poetry and prose from Australian and international writers. It’s produced by Booranga Writers’ Centre at Charles Sturt university, Wagga Wagga NSW. I was thrilled to have a short story included in this year’s collection, the thirtieth edition.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, I avoided this book for some time. When it was published in 2017 (Text Publishing) I read and heard a lot of praise about it, but I didn’t rush to get a copy. I’ve puzzled over the reason why: possibly, thinking it was simply a book about the work of a trauma cleaner, I was reluctant to indulge in what I’d thought of as a kind of ‘morbid curiosity’. How wrong I was!
This book is so many things. A biography, yes: it tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who runs a cleaning company that specialises in trauma cleaning. For those new to this term, this includes the obvious sorts of scenarios: buildings in which a murder or suicide has taken place, or where someone has died and been undiscovered for a long time…you can imagine the sort of mess resulting from these situations. But trauma cleaning, I learnt, also includes residences that would be described as sites of ‘hoarding and squalor’, where a council or community service has stepped in to order the removal of rubbish or to offer help to a resident unable to cope with household hygiene and maintenance.
The author shadowed Sandra on many of her jobs, and describes the scenes into which Sandra and her staff set foot, and the residents/clients, when they were present. We come to understand that there are many, many reasons why people become overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, frequently involving their own personal traumas, or ill health (physical or mental), or a combination of these things. And we come to understand that these situations are much more common than we may like to think.
So, that was my first surprise with this book – it taught me about the job of a trauma cleaner in a way that did not titillate or shock, but portrayed the lives of Sandra’s many clients in a manner that was both compassionate and matter of fact – exactly the way that Sandra herself approaches each cleaning job she embarks upon.
But the biggest surprise was that the book told so much of Sandra’s own story. She is a remarkable woman who has herself experienced deep and profound trauma and loss, and who now draws on the well of her own humanity to offer care and respect to the people for whom she works: families of deceased, people living with severe mental ill health, or in squalid situations.
Sandra’s story begins with her adoption – as a baby boy into a Catholic, working class family riven by domestic violence and alcoholism (well done, Catholic adoption system of the 1960’s!) and goes on to include her rejection by her adoptive parents when they have two biological children after adopting Peter, as baby Sandra is known in the book. The little boy was dealt levels of cruelty and neglect that were breathtaking, and which spark the uncomfortable thought that such childhood experiences are more common than many of us could know. Peter grew up, was kicked out of the family home, married, had two children, then discovered the gay scene of the 1970’s, and embarked on a path of self discovery (and self abuse via illicit drugs and alcohol), thinking all the while that the ‘difference’ for which his adoptive parents rejected him so vehemently in his childhood, was that he was homosexual.
Peter eventually realised that the truth was more complicated. He was not gay, but was a female born into a male body. With enormous courage, he decided to do what he could to right that wrong, by beginning a course of medications and hormones to change his outward appearance to a more feminine one, and then to endure sex reassignment surgery – one of the earliest people to undergo this procedure in Australia. Eventually, after numerous iterations, setbacks and new traumas, Peter became Sandra.
There is so much to the story of Sandra’s life that it is impossible to do it justice in a few paragraphs. What I loved about this book, though, was the author’s way of telling the story, giving the reader gems of information, circling around to the present and weaving back to the past. Krasnostein tells Sandra’s story with lyrical language and a thoughtfulness that befits such a complex, multi-layered life.
The Trauma Cleaner was the recipient of many literary awards: Victorian Prize for Literature in 2018, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction 2018, the ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year 2018, and the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Author, and it was shortlisted for many others. Having overcome my initial (and still puzzling) hesitancy to read it, I can understand why. It’s a wonderfully written book about a remarkable person.
As a footnote, I listened to the Audible audiobook version of The Trauma Cleaner, (Audible 2018) and the narration by Rachel Tidd was perfect, adding much to my experience of Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful words.
This is the second of Lucy Treloar’s novels I have read and it’s an eerie, brooding tale of environment, home, family and a society on the edge of catastrophe. Her first novel, Salt Creek, was also an exploration of the way humans and the environment interact, but it was set in a different place and time: South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1800’s. Wolfe Island begins on a fictional island in Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the USA. Time-wise, it is sometime in the future – though a not too distant future, as there is much that is recognisable and familiar.
The opening of Wolfe Island introduces us to Kitty Hawke, whose forebears have lived on the island since the 1600’s, but who is now the last inhabitant there. The reason? Wolfe Island is being consumed by rising sea levels and salt infestation, with houses and docks tumbling into the sea and large segments of the island already submerged. Kitty is unperturbed by her isolation. She is an artist who collects items and objects she finds along the shore line or dredges out of the mud, to create sculptures that she calls ‘makings.’ Her urge to create is intense and not to be ignored. She lives with some guilt that she left her two children and partner to live on the mainland while she returned to live alone on the island, apart from Girl, a wolfdog and long time companion. Otherwise, she is content.
This all changes on the day her granddaughter arrives in a small boat, in the midst of a storm and fleeing from unstated dangers. With Cat is her boyfriend Josh, another young man Luis, and Luis’ young sister Alejandra. Kitty understands that Luis and his sister are ‘runners’ – in this world there are many such people escaping from injustice, environmental havoc, or the law. It’s not stated explicitly but we understand that the pair are what would be termed ‘aliens’ in the US – illegal immigrants coming in across the US-Mexican border. They have already experienced horror and trauma in their young lives which is revealed slowly throughout the novel.
Part one of the novel is about Kitty, her deep relationship with the island and her art, and the world changing around her. She must learn to accommodate the newcomers and in doing so she grows to care deeply about them and will do anything to protect them. So much so, that in part two, Kitty herself becomes a ‘runner’ as the little group seek safety up north – again not specified, but very reminiscent of the paths taken by slaves seeking freedom in Canada in the nineteenth century. This section of the book feels like a road trip / adventure tale, with dangers (both human and environmental) at every turn. Part three sees Kitty back where she began, trying to create a home that feel right, and coping with memories and competing feelings of guilt and justification for actions she took to protect those she cares about.
The book is a deep dive into human behaviour, the bonds of family and friendship, and what it means to have a home. The environmental theme is strong, of course, and I was impressed by the way the author illustrates the sometimes contradictory and unhelpful ways that humans respond to threat. Much of it feels very familiar indeed:
There was nothing new in worrying about crops and vegetable gardens, but people had always paid more attention to the island being whittled away. Seawater coming up your hallway is disconcerting, I suppose…Islanders watched the tattered shores and kicked at them and said, ‘She’ll turn around again, just you wait. It’s always been changeable. (p 50)
It was like a dream. People prefer to live like this, ignoring the things that might wake them, as if ignorance might force the world into returning to its proper course. (p130)
What do you do when everything falls apart? You gather up the people you love and the few things you hold dear, and all the rest? You let it fall away. (p184)
There are beautiful descriptions of place: the birds, plants, wildlife of the island and the landscapes the little group travel through on their search for safety. One of the strengths of this book is the way the physical and emotional states of place and people reflect and affect each other. The disintegrating island is a wonderful metaphor for a society that, despite pockets of kindness, goodwill and generosity, has allowed the worst of human nature to rise up, leading to the disintegration of the human world as well. Girl, Kitty’s beloved wolfdog, is a companion but also a strong link to the wildness of the world outside Kitty’s home. That wildness is one of the reasons Kitty loves the dog so much.
Here is an example of the richness of language in Wolfe Island :
I heard everything there as clear as if I’d been half deaf before: the thin call of a gull, the whistle of a kite, the wind sounding like rain in the grasses. I might sit for a morning, watch the clouds, feel the wind on my left cheek, and how it shifted by noon, the way the clouds shadowed the sun and I shivered, insects going to ground, birds plunging to trees, everything but weather growing still and watchful, and without a thought I went into the house with Girl at my side and secured the windows and watched the storm. This was my world and I was its. I wished for nothing else. But life does not go on in the same way. Sometimes the world is a blizzard-filled snow globe. Things happen in the shaking and the settling. (p287)
For me, the most thought provoking parts of the novel were those that prompted me to reflect on what it means to be human, in all its messiness and loveliness. Certainly, there are echoes of many current global concerns throughout this book: climate change, the huge cost to individuals, nations and the planet of the vast movements of refugees across the earth, whether due to environmental, political or religious factors.
It’s a beautiful, sombre book and I recommend it.
Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, published by Picador, 2019
Lovers of historical fiction will know that Philippa Gregory is one of the most well known and respected UK authors, with titles such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Last Tudor and The Constant Princess on best seller lists, some made into movies or TV series. These books explored the stories of the women caught up in the wars and intrigues of the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties in England. With her latest novel, Tidelands, the focus moves away from royals and courts, to the ordinary folk, the people who live with the consequences of the decisions and actions of royalty and aristocracy throughout history.
What hasn’t changed is the author’s interest in telling the stories of women. In Tidelands the central character is Alinor, a poor woman living in the marshy coastal regions of southern England in the mid seventeenth century. Alinor is a midwife, herbalist and healer – sought after by her fellow villagers in times of ill health or childbirth, but also regarded with suspicion at a time when the line between ‘healer’ and ‘witch’ could be so easily blurred.
Alinor’s England is convulsed by civil war, and the ‘old ways’ of the Catholic Church and many of the centuries-old village customs are frowned upon or banned. Villagers and nobles alike are forced to choose sides: for King or for Parliament. Declaring your choice could be dangerous, depending on which way the pendulum of victory swings, and villagers were sometimes all too keen to inform on their neighbours if there was gain in it for them.
Amidst all this turmoil and suspicion, Alinor wants to live a quiet life with her two growing children, not causing offence or getting involved in political or religious debate. She grows her herbs, prepares her healing tonics and tinctures, assists those who need her help, and labours on the local estate during harvest season. She is disadvantaged both economically and socially by being ‘neither a wife nor a widow’, since her abusive husband disappeared at sea. Some of the less generous villagers look at her with disdain because of this alone.
At the opening of the book, Alinor meets James, a Catholic priest on a mission to assist the exiled King Charles – and she is immediately drawn into a web of intrigue and secrets. She helps James across the hazardous marshes that surround her home. There is no turning back from this moment, as events draw inexorably to their dangerous conclusions.
The novel skilfully weaves the tiny details of Alinor’s and village life within the tapestry of a nation convulsed by political conflict and religious fanaticism. Philippa’s meticulous research shows in these details: the work of the harvest, the water mill where the grain is turned into flour, the herbs of Alinor’s garden, the customs around betrothal, dowries, marriage and childbirth, the work of collecting eggs and making meals. They drew me in until I could almost feel the mud under my boots, smell the smouldering fire of Alinor’s cottage, see the thick fogs of the marshlands. I love the details of daily life that sit alongside the grand sweep of historical events.
There is romance in the story, although this is not a ‘happily ever after’ sort of novel and the romance plays out in unexpected ways. There are chilling scenes of persecution that left me enraged and tender moments of family love and loyalty that are timeless.
Most of all, the setting plays a pivotal role throughout – the estuarine marshes are a fitting backdrop for a story about personal and political suspicion and treachery. It is an eerie, dramatic and marginal landscape on which the affairs of Alinor and her family, and those of the nation, are played out.
I loved this novel and I was happy to learn that this is book one in what the author calls the Fairmile series. I look forward to reading book two.