• Writing

    Short story: ‘Crammed’

    Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

    This was my Furious Fiction entry for July. https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/

    The story parameters for the month were:
    500 words or less, the story was to be set on a train of some sort, something had to be frozen, and there had to be three sentences of three words in a row.

    CRAMMED            by Denise Newton                                                              

    The stench is terrible. I know my faeces and urine are mixed in with the rest. But that’s hardly my fault. Rounded up, taken against my will, crammed into this carriage with dozens—no, hundreds—of my fellows. I’ve stopped counting the sunsets and sunrises, so I can’t tell how long I’ve been here.

    I don’t care about the hunger but my thirst is ferocious. The roof of my mouth feels as if it’s lined with gum and my tongue is stiff, almost frozen in place. When I look at the faces of my companions, I can tell they’re suffering in the same way. Hot and thirsty. Deafened by noise. So terribly frightened.

    We travel in what seems to be an endless straight line, in the heat of days, with orange sunlight slipping in like razors through the bars, and then through tunnels of night. Sometimes we stop and I hear crunching footsteps and muffled voices outside. I don’t know what they want with me. What their plan is. Or where they are taking us.

    In the dark, I close my eyes occasionally and try to imagine I’m somewhere else. I do try. I think about the lush grass at the edges of the house paddock, the cool of it beneath my legs. I think about the river and the blue bowl of the summer sky. But then the dark presses in against my face and I open my eyes wide in terror, open my mouth to cry out, but shut it again because really, what use is it? There’s no one to hear my pain and fear except those squashed in here with me. So I remain silent, listening to the complaints and groans and snuffles of those nearby, and the roar and rumble of the engine up ahead. We hurtle on through time.

    Wait…are we…? Yes, I think we are slowing. Gradually the speed drops and the engine shifts down with a whine. It takes a long time but eventually my companions and I lurch forward, then settle back as we come to a halt. We look at each other. What’s next?

    There’s a clang of chains and the dull thud of ropes being unfastened and dropped to the ground. A metallic clunk and the sun spears through the back door as it is lowered. Men appear, shadowed against the light. Men with hats and boots and dusty trousers. They move us out, two at a time down a ramp. The air trembles with their shouts and our cries. I blink in the harsh light. The road train stands there, all three trailers with their high bars and many wheels. Our prison, for however long it took us to arrive here.

    One man calls to the others. His words carry across the thick dust to my ears.
    ‘Load ‘em onto the ship,’ he shouts, ‘this lot are headed to Indonesia. Good lot of beef rendang here.’

     He smiles but I don’t see the joke.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    The value of a creative date: about the new Australian play ‘Forgotten’

    I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.

    I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.

    Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.

    While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.

    Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:

    …young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…

    Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet

    There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.

    Scenes from Forgotten performed by members of Captivate

    The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.

    So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.

    And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.

    If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/

    #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge

  • Books and reading

    Love your local (bookshop)

    It’s August 10th and it is Love your Bookshop Day.

    So, what can you do to celebrate? Visit your favourite bookshop of course!

    If you are lucky enough to have a bookshop reasonably close to you, perhaps you could post about it on social media, help spread the word, and share why you love it.

    Do they hold special days, author talks, book signings, celebrations?
    Are the staff super helpful in finding and choosing just the perfect book for a special person or occasion?
    Are the displays particularly inviting?
    Or maybe they have rare, old or specialist books that are hard to find elsewhere?
    Some stores go all-out to engage kids – especially around this time of year when it’s National Book Week.

    Post a link, a photo, and share the love of bookshops.



  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: Miles Franklin winner for 2019: ‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko

    Published 2018 by University of Queensland Press

    Melissa Lucashenko has just been awarded the 2019’s Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s premier literary prizes, for Too Much Lip. It’s the first novel from this author that I’ve read and I’ll be looking to read more of her books, such is the quality of this one.

    The story revolves around the Salters, a Bundjalung family from a fictional small town in northern NSW. I know this region as a holiday destination, with rolling green hills inland and beautiful beaches along the coast. So it was sobering to read about the other side – the darker side – of places like this.

    Kerry Salter had escaped the hopelessness and despair of the area to live in Queensland. She’s back – briefly she hopes – to say goodbye to her proud grandfather, a respected elder of the family and community, whose own life has its darker corners. Pop dies and Kerry longs to get the hell out of there again, but family business and conflicts get in the way. Secrets are revealed, the long threads of inter-generational trauma untangled, and wounds are healed, made afresh and healed again, before the story concludes.

    There is a plot by a local corrupt real estate agent and town mayor to sell off a piece of ancestral land to be thwarted, arrest warrants to be dodged, and a long lost sister to meet again. Not to mention sorting out her feelings for Steve – a school friend from long ago who is now the local gym manager and boxing trainer – and who is not only male, but white into the bargain. As someone who considers herself a lesbian and who has vowed to never get involved with a white fella, this all serves to confuse and unsettle Kerry.

    The characters are all complex, not always especially likeable, but compelling. I cared a great deal about this family. And Lucashenko’s skillful revealing of their past and present traumas, their lives lived as outsiders even on the land of their ancestors, helped me to understand more of the experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I enjoyed the way the author wove in words from the Bundjalung language through the dialogue. This is especially timely as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.


    (As an aside, anyone living on Dharug land or interested in learning more about Dharug culture and language might want to check out the online language lessons given by Dharug woman Jacinta Tobin through ABC Education)
    http://education.abc.net.au/home#!/media/2454606/meet-jacinta-tobin-from-the-dharug-nation

    To finish, here is a beautiful quote from the novel that spoke loudly to me, involved as I’ve been in researching family history and stories:

    And that’s what graves are for, the realisation dawned on Kerry. They distilled your family history. They took what your ancestors did and who they were and gave it to you in one place, so you could go there and think about your lives and learn the lessons you needed to learn in order to keep on going.

    Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko, page 134
  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘In a Great Southern Land’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Published 2019 by HQ (Harper Collins Aust)

    If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.

    Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)

    The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.

    I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.

    A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on the story of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.

  • Books and reading

    Judging a book by its cover (or, what’s in a name?)

    I’m fascinated by the world of book design. I’m not a designer, nor is any part of me artistic, but I am very admiring of the beauty and power of a good book cover and design. Similarly, I love book titles: the way a few words (or sometimes just one word) can sum up a book’s essence, it’s very heart. Anyone who has struggled with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of writing a book synopsis – summarising a whole novel in 500 words, give or take – will know what I mean when I say that the ability to choose just the right title for a work is one to be admired.

    Lately I’ve noticed some interesting trends in both book design and title choice.

    Firstly, design. I’m focusing here on two main genres – historical fiction and contemporary fiction. Not crime, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thrillers. These genres have their own very distinct styles and typical cover images and colours. Browse a book store or library shelves for a while and you’ll see this.
    A current trend for historical/contemporary fiction of the kind that I read – typically by women authors, many Australian ones – is for covers redolent with gorgeous flower motifs. Here are a few examples:

    Aren’t they beautiful? I’ve not read Tess Woods’ Love and Other Battles or Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant as yet, but I can speak to the other two as being lovely novels inside their lovely covers. These are good examples of the trend for flower-adorned covers. It is definitely a ‘thing’ right now, and one which I am enjoying. I love these kinds of cover images and the beautiful design features which often continue right throughout the novels.

    Now to book titles. A trend I’m noticing here is the tendency for titles to say something about a protagonist in terms of either their own profession/occupation, or that of a family member. Examples of this are:
    The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (this one also belongs in the ‘beautiful cover design’ category – see image below)
    The Post Mistress by Alison Stuart
    The French Photographer by Natasha Lester
    The ZooKeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
    The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
    The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn (another ‘lovely cover’ winner)
    The Orchardist’s Daughter by Diane Ackerman
    The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

    I don’t know the reason for these trends. Publishers and editors have a major say in how a book is styled and what it is called. Most probably these are fashions, and fashions come and go: remember a while ago when it seemed like every second book published had ‘girl’ in its title? (Gone Girl, Girl on the Page, Girl in the Window…)
    I’ll wait with interest to see what will be the next big thing for book names and designs.

    What other titles or covers can you suggest that follow these latest trends? Can you think of past book trends that have come and gone ?

  • Books and reading

    Short Story (some winter whimsy)

    This was my effort for the https://www.writerscentre.com.au/category/furious-fiction/ contest in June. The parameters for the month were:

    The story (500 words or less) had to have a ‘party’ of some kind in it, as well as a ‘button’, and include the words ‘The air was thick with…’
    Australia had not long concluded a Federal Election so I guess that theme was foremost in my mind.
    Here’s my entry:

    I Care by Denise Newton

    ‘Vote One for the I Care party?’ The volunteer’s face was hopeful. She clutched narrow black and white leaflets close to her chest like a protective shield.

    I watched people pass by her on their way into the polling place. Some shook their heads in a curt dismissal. Others gave an apologetic smile. Most simply ignored her. None took the proffered paper. I was intrigued. She didn’t falter, even when a young man made a rude gesture at her with his finger and knocked the papers from her hand, scattering them like clumsy confetti on the ground. At that point, I stepped across to help her pick them up.

    “Thanks!” She gave me a wide smile as I held out the leaflets to her.

    “Hope you don’t mind me saying, it looks like no one’s interested in your party,” I said, as gently as I could. Why was she persisting in the face of such apparent disregard?

    “I know.”

    “So why do you bother?” My question was blunt, but I wanted to know what drove this young woman to volunteer her time on a chilly election day, standing in a blustery wind that nipped at the edges of comfort.

    “Oh, well…” she undid a button on her coat, before slipping some of the leaflets into an inside pocket. “I want people to know there’s a point to it all, you know?”

    I shook my head, bemused. “A point?”

    “People get all riled up about things. I just want them to know that some people care.”

    “Care about what?”

    “Care about them.” She smiled at an approaching couple, and held out a leaflet. They sidled past. Her smile didn’t falter.

    “But…what does your party promise to do?”

    “Oh, we don’t promise to do anything. Just care about people.”

    I began to chuckle. “Don’t all parties promise that?”

    “Of course not. They promise to build roads, or employ nurses, or turn back boats. No one promises to care. But the I Care party—that’s the only promise we make. Everything follows from that.”

    I examined her. She didn’t appear to be psychologically disturbed, but then I was no expert. Perhaps the I Care party was a cult of some sort? She was dressed normally, no weird hippie gear, and she didn’t look undernourished, as I thought a cult member might.

    “And what would you do if your party won a seat?”

    She gave a small shrug, as if the answer was obvious.

    “We’d care, of course!”

    I gave a little shake of my head. “OK, well, nice to meet you. And—er—good luck.” I held out my hand. She shook it, her blue eyes crinkled in another smile.

    I left her then, entering the polling place to cast my vote. The air was thick with the odour of antagonism, carefully hidden beneath a screen of civility.

    In the voting cubicle, I watched in disbelief as my pencil marked a ‘1’in the box next to the I Care party candidate.


  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Nanberry: Black Brother White’ by Jackie French

    Nanberry: Black Brother White, by Jackie French, published by Angus & Robertson 2011.

    This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.

    The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.

    We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.

    Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.

    Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Books for the tough times

    If you are anything like me, you might pick up a book for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s to escape into another world, or another life, or to learn things, or pass the time. Or just because I can’t bear passing an entire day without reading. And sometimes, reading can help me cope with difficult times or emotions.
    Here’s my go-to collection of books that have helped me at various times and for various reasons.

    About ten years ago I came across two beautiful books that I connected with strongly.

    Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight (Penguin, 2010) is a meditation on how particular books helped the author through her experiences of diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. In it, she writes:

    A good book laces invisible fingers into the shape of a winter armchair or a hammock in the sun. I’m not talking about comfort, necessarily, but support. A good writer might take you to strange and difficult places, but you’re in the hands of someone you trust.

    ‘Reading by Moonlight’ p 8

    The other book that was meaningful for me around that time was Worse Things Happen at Sea by William McInnes and Sarah Watt (Hachette, 2011). This collection of anecdotes, reflections and photographs celebrates the author’s marriage, creative partnership, children, families and neighbourhood and is made especially poignant by the knowledge that Sarah later died of breast cancer. I loved the book because of its inherent optimism and the spirit of thankfulness that imbues the writing of both authors. Here’s a snippet from Sarah:

    I began to count what I had. Not my blessings, just what I had: a car, a healthy child, a lovely man, enough money to pay the mortgage, not enough to cause worry, Australian citizenship, ten pairs of shoes. A pathetic amount in some eyes, absurdly wasteful in others.

    ‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ p 145

    Another kind of inspirational book is Rise by Ingrid Poulson (Pan MacMillan 2008) Ingrid endured what many would consider the worst kind of trauma: in 2003 her estranged husband murdered her father and her two small children in front of her, and tried to kill her also. Her book is both a reflection on these events and her own survival, and a guide to developing and practicing resilience. It’s a very practical book while also being full of compassion and kindness for the suffering of others. Here is Ingrid at the end of her book:

    My journey continues on, as does yours. There is always room for improvement, but much more for appreciation and gratitude...I have never regretted love I have given…I seek joy and I survive well. I live for those who cannot.

    Rise p 226

    And now, some books to allow for the experience of various emotions:

    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, first published 1908. I read and re-read all of the Anne books so many times in my childhood and teens, I have lost count. Full of sweet humour and poignant moments, it’s a perfect book to indulge in a good cry – especially the scene when Mathew dies. Never fails for me.

    The House at Pooh Corner and all the other books about Winnie- the- Pooh by A A Milne, first published 1928. These books are all mini philosophy lessons wrapped up in simple stories for children. So many quotable quotes! Here’s one of my favourites:

    Christopher Robin thought that if he stood on the bottom rail of a bridge and leant over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath him, then he would suddenly know everything there was to be known, and he would be able to tell Pooh, who wasn’t quite sure about some of it.

    The House at Pooh Corner, p 102

    I’ll finish with some poetry, because poems are always good to turn to in difficult times. There are two poems by the American poet Mary Oliver that I especially love: ‘A Summer’s Day’ and ‘Wild Geese’, both in the collection Wild Geese (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)
    And Judith Wright, a favourite Australian poet, with her poem ‘The Trap’ (in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, 1986. Here’s a stanza from this poem:

    ‘I love you,’ said the child,
    but the parrot with its blazing breast and wing
    flaunted in the high tree, love’s very beckoning,
    and would not be beguiled.

    The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, p 75

    What are some of the books or poems that have supported you in difficult times? Let me know in the comments.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    An exploration of art: Book review ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

    Australian author Heather Rose’s 2016 novel The Museum of Modern Love’ is her eight novel and the winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

    Published by Allen & Unwin 2016

    It is unlike any book I have read before. Literary in its style, it is an accessible read and populated by a varied cast of characters, most of whom could be described as ‘creative types’ – musicians, artists, writers, poets, broadcasters, journalists. The novel takes the viewpoint of several characters, though it circles back to two main protagonists: Arky Levin, a film score composer, and Marina Abramovic, a well known performance artist.

    Now, part way through the book I had to stop and ‘Google’ Marina Abramovic. I needed to check if the performances described by Rose in the novel were based on real events. They struck me as especially far-fetched. To my astonishment, there they all were, listed on various websites describing Abramovic’s artistic career. For example, Let’s See what happens, 1972, in which the artist sat in a room equipped with seventy two items (including wine, scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun – with a single bullet – paper, flowers…) and invited people to use the objects on her as they wished; Balkan Baroque, 2000, in which the artist sat scrubbing an enormous pile of cow bones; and the performance at the centre of this novel, The Artist is Present, which took New York by storm in 2010.

    In this piece, Abramovic spent seventy five days in a bare room, at a table with two chairs facing each other. She sat in one, and audience members took turns to sit in the other. During each sitting, the artist and participant did nothing except gaze on each other’s face. A sitting could last between several minutes to several hours. When one participant vacated the seat, another took their place and the gazing resumed. Abramovic kept up this still, silent sitting every day until the Museum of Modern Art closed each evening. She did not move, drink, speak, visit a toilet – she did nothing but sit and gaze at the revolving cast of people in the chair opposite.

    Before reading this book, I knew very little about performance art, and thought even less of it, to be honest. If asked, I probably would have dismissed it as ‘indulgent nonsense.’ While I’m not sure that this novel has convinced me to rush to the next performance art piece I hear of, but it has made me stop and reflect on the place and value of art – in all its forms – in our human world.

    In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose describes the impact of sitting across from the artist, on those who chose to do so and those who watched but did not participate. A surprising number were visibly moved or shaken by the experience. In the novel, we get an inside view of this impact, from the point of view of several of the characters.

    Reading this book has made me realise that art can take many more shapes than I had previously thought, that it is not always static – as in looking at a painting or sculpture, or listening to a piece of music, for example. It can also be an exchange between two or more people. Each participant will take from the experience their own meaning.

    The other pleasure in this novel is Rose’s beautiful language. Here is just one example:

    He saw how her students must see her. This bird of a mind leaping from branch to branch.

    And here’s another little snippet, which I think sums up one of the main themes of the novel:

    Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice,then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die.

    As an aside – a shout out to Blue Mountains Library Services, who have introduced a range of books printed in a font style that is easier for readers with dyslexia. The copy of The Museum of Modern Love that I borrowed from there just happened to be in that format. What a great innovation!

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

    The French Photographer by Natasha Lester. Hachette, published 2019.

    The French Photographer is this Perth-based author’s fourth work of historical fiction. Her books have been published in fairly quick succession from 2016-2019. I do marvel at such an output, as Lester’s novels are meaty with historical detail which would involve much research (although, as she pointed out at an author talk at Newtown’s ‘Better Read than Dead’ bookstore recently, research involving travel to Paris and a French chateau isn’t all hard slog.)

    Her historical fiction works are also lush with settings like New York, Paris, and the French countryside, handsome heroes and beautiful protagonists. Now, if that sounds like a recipe for your classic ‘romance’, perhaps think again. Yes, her novels have a strong romance element with love and heartbreak often sharing the stage. The covers are lusciously beautiful, something I greatly enjoy. What I most enjoy about books like The French Photographer, though, is that they pay homage to those women from the past, who chose a path not normally available to women in their time.

    In the case of The French Photographer, the heroine is Jessica May, fashion model turned war photographer and correspondent for Vogue magazine during the Second World War. Inspired by and based on the life of real-life model turned war correspondent Lee Miller, Jessica’s path takes her from posing for photographs to taking them, and from New York’s high life at the beginning of World War Two, to the blood, filth, butchery and despair of the war fronts in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany. On the way she meets and eventually falls in love with Dan Hallworth, the requisite handsome hero who becomes her loyal and honourable friend, then lover.

    Amidst the political nonsense and misogynistic attitudes of the US Army, and concerted efforts to prevent women correspondents from getting anywhere near the war action in order to write about it, Jess has to fight her own battles, just to be allowed to do her job. The author has researched this aspect of the story particularly well and readers can trust that the more outlandish sounding reasons why women were not allowed the freedom to do this work properly, were actually trotted out at the time. Some of it is jaw dropping stuff.

    Like her previous novel The Paris Seamstress (2018), this one has a dual timeline and involves complicated relationships between a modern day granddaughter, D’Arcy, her mother Victorine, and her grandmother. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who has not yet read the novel by saying more about that. But I will mention that the character Victorine is based on a little girl that the author saw, in a newsreel about the exodus from Paris as the German army approached.

    Natasha Lester’s admiration for Miller, the woman who inspired this story, shines from every page. Miller did not have an easy life and after the war, her ground-breaking work, photographing and writing about what she saw and experienced in Europe, was virtually forgotten. Jessica May, similarly, faces heartbreak and loss. There is no ‘happy ever after’ ending in this story – perhaps another feature which distinguishes it from the conventional romance story arc.

    As with all good historical fiction, while reading this book I was inspired to look up Miller, to learn more about her and to see examples of her astounding photographic work, as well as her pre-war work as a model.

    So thank you, Natasha Lester, for opening another door in the hidden history of women.