• Books and reading

    A ‘functionally dysfunctional’ family: ‘When Grace Went Away’ by Meredith Appleyard

    I always enjoy novels about families. The sticky-beak in me enjoys peering into the domestic dramas of others – a bit like glancing through a window to see the activities, furnishings and colour choices of unknown residents as you walk past.

    The blurb for When Grace Went Away describes the Fairley family, around which the story revolves, as ‘functionally dysfunctional’, which really means a very normal family, in my opinion at least. We follow Grace, eldest daughter of Sarah and Doug, who her younger brother Tim describes as ‘corporate suit on a six-figure salary.’ There is envy of Grace’s corporate banking career, her job offer in London, her expensive SUV. Tim remains stuck on the hard-scrabble farm north of Adelaide with his father, longing for a different life but not knowing how to break away. His father, Doug, is bitter – about lots of things but especially about the death in an accident eight years ago of his youngest son Luke, and the way his wife left him and the farm three years later.

    Faith, another sibling, is also angry that Sarah left. Never mind that her mother spent three years (unsuccessfully) trying to reach her husband emotionally so that they could grieve their son together. Or that since she moved to Adelaide, with Grace’s financial and emotional support, Sarah faced a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Faith refuses to engage with her mother or allow her two young children to see their grandmother.

    So, this is a family with a whole lot going on, much of it (though not all of it) stemming from Luke’s death. Grace returns occasionally to her childhood home town of Miner’s Ridge, a small community in South Australia, and this is where the novel opens. She is trying to pluck up the courage to tell her father that in a couple of weeks she will be in London, tackling what she hopes will be an exciting new job and life. But we meet Grace throwing up in the toilet of the local pub after having a few too many wines while waiting for her perennially late brother Tim to join her. This visit ‘home’ does not start well and sets the tone for the rest of the family interactions.

    She meets Aaron on this trip, and he forms the basis of an important romantic thread and the catalyst which propels Grace to make some hard decisions – about her life, her job, her home, family and other relationships. Other characters fill out the small town atmosphere of Miner’s Ridge (where everyone knows everyone’s business) and the equally enmeshed though more glamorous corporate world of London. They are brought to vivid life and very recognisable – especially if you have spent any time in either of those types of settings.

    Grace’s predicament is also recognisable – a very common one in the complicated world of today – torn between career and family, opportunity and duty.

    Grace is a sympathetic character but I found myself relating more to Sarah, her mother – perhaps because some of my own experiences are more akin to hers and we are closer in age. I was especially moved by the portrayal of the decline and death of Sarah’s elderly mum, her grief as she cleared out her mother’s room in the nursing home, her sadness that:

    All that was left of Mum were the memories – and a suitcase and a cardboard box, both sitting in the back of Grace’s SUV. How sad was that? All that was left of her life fit into the back of my daughter’s car.

    When Grace Went Away p104

    I well remember that feeling from when my father passed away.

    For me this is one of the strengths of the novel: exploring experiences and emotions common to many, so that we, along with the characters, reflect on what is important to us. Grace’s brother Tim, sums this up well:

    I’ve learned that we all need to work out who, and what, are truly important in our lives. Then we need to look after what we have, and go all out for what we want. Doesn’t mean we’ll always get it…but at least we will have tried.

    When Grace went Away p328

    When Grace Went Away is published 2020 by HQ Fiction. Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Harrowing yet ultimately hopeful: ‘Invisible Boys’ by Holden Sheppard

    Holden Sheppard’s debut novel follows the struggles of three high school boys in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, as they try to figure out the big things of life: who they are, where they belong, what family and friendships mean, and their sexuality. All three suspect they are gay and each has a different response , as they also try to navigate the various responses to homosexuality by the people around them.

    I recall that during Australia’s sometimes fractious marriage equality debates, there were warnings from those working with young people, especially in rural and regional areas, that the divisiveness and stigma still attached to homosexuality would be worsened by the rancour around the campaign. They worried that it could cause further harm to young people already struggling with questions around their sexual identity. The events played out in Invisible Boys bring these concerns to life in a realistic way.

    The author wrote in his Acknowledgements that each of the three main characters represented a part of himself. And yes, so vividly are they portrayed, the characters and events must surely have arisen from lived experience.

    The three young protagonists are Zeke, a studious boy from a staunchly Italian Catholic family; Hammer, an athletic boy who dreams of becoming a star football player; and Charlie, a punk rocker who has no idea of where he fits – he only knows that it’s not in Geraldton, not in his Catholic high school, and certainly not in his neglectful, dismissive family. A fourth character, Matt, comes from a local farming family and plays an important role as the novel progresses.

    The boys differ in the level of sympathy they engendered from me at the beginning of the novel. Hammer presents as a particularly repellent individual, the result of being raised in a toxic swill of extreme homophobia and sickening misogyny. As events unfold, there are glimpses of other facets of personality and what makes each boy behave the way they do, their fears and insecurities.
    Here is Zeke, for example:

    Why am I so weak? Why do I cower to this? I know homosexuality is natural in the animal kingdom. I don’t think anyone should have fewer rights than anyone else. I don’t hate it in other people as much as I hate it in myself. And yet I fall in line with Father Mulroney’s condemnation.

    Invisible Boys p507

    This quote, incidentally, is from a scene which also has some laugh-out-loud moments – Zeke’s excruciating enforced act of confession in church.

    And here is Charlie:

    I figured you’re allowed to tell other gay guys in the closet. It’s like mutually assured destruction. Either of you tells and it’s catastrophe, like a nuclear winter.

    Invisible Boys p523

    Anyone who can remember their own pathway through the agonies and traps of adolescence will relate to the boys’ struggles. And the added layers of difficulty imposed by their families, friends and community, can only be viewed as absurd, unfair and entirely unnecessary. Why make someone’s path to adulthood harder than it needs to be?

    The last word on this book belongs to its author:

    …my teenage self, who, for a long time, didn’t want to be on this planet anymore because he was a gay bloke. Good on you for staying alive, you resilient bastard. Turns out you were good just the way you were.

    Holden Sheppard, Acknowledgements in Invisible Boys.

    Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. It was the recipient of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award 2018 (even before publication!) and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2020, as well as being a Notable Book in the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and longlisted in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among other accolades.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading,  History

    The story of a generous and beautiful Australian: Archie Roach’s memoir ‘Tell Me Why’

    I remember the first time I saw Archie Roach perform. I’d bought his first two albums (Charcoal Lane and Jamu Dreaming) and already loved his music, his voice, and the honesty of his songs. Walking into Doors always brought me to tears, perhaps because of my own life experiences years before. I’d not seen him perform live, until the Woodford Folk Festival (one of Australia’s biggest and most magical festivals) in the mid 1990’s.
    My sister and I left our arrival at the big tent venue where Archie was going to play a bit late, and ended up perched on a grassy hillock to one side, where we were crammed in with others who loved this man’s music and message. All I could see were his legs and feet!

    It didn’t matter. Archie’s sublime voice sailed out above the gathered crowd, touching hearts with his stories and his humble and generous manner. From that moment I was an avowed Archie fan.

    Tell Me Why is a memoir, tracing his incredible, tragic, wonderful life and career. Just as his songs (like Charcoal Lane, Took the Children Away, A Child was Born Here, Walking into Doors, Jamu Dreaming, or Weeping in the Forest) told the stories of this land and it’s history, Tell Me Why gives us insight into Archie’s own story, his journey through a childhood as one of the Stolen Generations, discovering as a schoolboy in Melbourne that he had a whole birth family elsewhere, and the many years he spent trying to discover and reconcile his indigenous identity.

    I found it shocking to realise that he grew up knowing nothing of the Stolen Generations, either at a personal level or the wider ramifications for indigenous Australians. Nor did he know about the ‘missions’, established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of corralling indigenous Australians into settlements, often away from their traditional country. These were among practices that were either about protection of indigenous Australians, or a form of apartheid making it easier for Europeans to take and occupy land. Whichever way you regard the motives behind these occurrences, the results were mostly tragic, with ramifications felt by generations to come. For Archie and many of his family and friends, this included struggles with addictions of various kinds:

    We were part of an obliterated culture, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again. We’d lost mates and family young, and we would again. We had lineages we knew so little about. There was death in our past, and death in our future, but we craved a carefree and happy present, and booze offered us that.

    Tell Me Why p54

    Archie talks about his own struggles with alcoholism; his painful rehabilitation; grief at the untimely deaths of family members; his health challenges. There is joy, also: meeting Ruby Hunter, his life partner; creating a family together; discovering that for him, music might be more powerful than the drink. (p144)
    I laughed with him at his memory of one of his first big live gigs, opening for Paul Kelly & The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, when he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was and mistook him for a bouncer!

    Reading Archie’s reflections on life, people, and the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal culture, there were reminders for me of the beautiful book Song Spirals, with its exploration of indigenous perceptions and beliefs about time, life and death. Here is Archie:

    There was no word for death, because life is an endless continuum – you didn’t die, you travelled; you left one place to go to another. Life kept going on, unceasingly. The Bundjalung didn’t have a word for ‘thanks’, either, with the closest being to ‘wish someone well’. There was no need to say anything if someone gave you something; you would just wish them well because sharing and generosity was expected.
    Even though I couldn’t speak my father’s language, when I sang in Bundjalung it felt as if I was doing something I’d done before long ago. It was in my memory.

    Tell Me Why p274

    Characteristically, the memoir finishes in his inclusive style, reflecting on what joins Australians together regardless of race or background:

    Now my songwriting feels more inclusive, more universal…I have come to realise that it’s about all of us – you can’t really write about yourself without including everyone. What affects you invariably affects others as well…Now my whole outlook on life is about reminding us all of the place where we all began, where we all came from …the ‘place of fire’…{It’s} a place of love and connection.

    Tell me Why pp 351-353

    This memoir will make you cry, feel anger, laugh out loud, and when you have finished, I promise you, your heart will be full of Archie’s generous and resilient spirit.

    Tell Me Why was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading

    New thriller title: ‘Cutting the Cord’ by Natasha Molt

    The opening of this book puts the reader slap bang into the intrigue and action. There is a brief prologue where we are given a hint of the mystery at the centre of the novel: who is Amira’s family? To whom does she owe loyalty? Then we are thrust into the action: an assassination being carried out by the protagonist, Amira. She is very good at her work. But here is another puzzle: why is she killing a wealthy European businessman in his garden greenhouse?

    We are quickly introduced to the reason. Amira, adopted as an infant to parents who lead the Authenticity Movement, has been raised to be one of the Movement’s Warriors, who carry out assassinations of people considered to be ‘infected.’ It becomes clear that what this means is that they are people who have benefited from the capitalist system, accumulating huge wealth, power and advantage. The Movement aims to instigate a global revolution against the capitalist system.

    Here is the catch, and the conflict at the heart of the novel – Amira is beginning to doubt that the methods used by the Movement are justified by its lofty goals. She also starts looking for clues about her birth family. By questioning the Movement and her place in it, she puts herself and others in danger.

    I don’t read much in the thriller genre, but I do enjoy well written crime fiction, especially if there is an intelligent female protagonist and a strong emphasis on character. Cutting the Cord has both, and the narrative is told through tight, snappy sentences and some evocative descriptive language. The tension escalates as all the threads of Amira’s complicated life meet in a pulse raising climax.

    I would have liked more explanation of the Authenticity Movement. It read to me as a type of closed quasi-religious cult in which members are brainwashed and cowed by the powerful leader, Amira’s adoptive father. There were aspects that were familiar from stories of other cults – alternating abuse and favoritism, violence and love welded together in powerful ways. I think I needed to see more about where the Movement’s manifesto came from and the reasons why it’s leader chose acts of terrorism to achieve his aims. This may have helped me to suspend disbelief more easily.

    What I did enjoy was Amira’s journey, as she moves towards discovering who she really is, in all ways:

    She closes her eyes. Cramped tears threaten to tumble. Thoughts scramble around in her mind. She is coming to understand that: slaves have brains and there is so much more to the world than she has been taught. But how can she move on from the past when it stains the present?

    Cutting the Cord p171

    This is a moment familiar to most of us – when we begin to peek through the curtains of childhood or our upbringing to see the wide world outside, and begin to wonder about what we think we know and what we have yet to understand. This is exactly the challenge Amira faces in Cutting the Cord – but with much higher stakes.

    Cutting the Cord is the debut novel by Natasha Molt and published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in May 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    An engrossing wartime mystery that crosses generations: Sonya Bates’ ‘An Inheritance of Secrets’

    In her author’s note, Sonya Bates admits that she has a ‘fascination with secrets and mysteries’ and that this led her to write a very different novel than the one she’d planned to write. I, for one, am pleased she did, as I enjoy a tale with some secrets and twists. I read this book in record time, and would describe it as a ‘page turner’, but it is also a book that prompted me to think about some of the issues covered in its pages.

    To begin with, the question ‘How well can we really know another person, even a family member?’

    Juliet, the protagonist in An Inheritance of Secrets, must confront this question after the murder of her beloved grandparents, who emigrated to Australia after WWII. They were German, and Juliet knows that her Opa served in the German army. As events unfold after his death, Juliet realises that there were things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ lives before they came to Australia. She is caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and urgently needs to find out more about what her grandfather may have been involved in during his youth. She is torn: does she really want to discover the truth if it means knowing that her Opa was not always the kind, loving man she’d believed him to be?

    There have been many real-life cases, in Australia and around the world, where later generations are confronted with unpleasant truths about beloved parents or grandparents – things they would rather not know. So we feel for Juliet, faced with this awful dilemma. Danger stalks her and she must find answers: who killed her grandparents and why? The tension ratchets as Juliet comes closer to the truth, making this novel an engrossing read.

    Along with the mystery, there are interesting characters who interact in believable ways: Juliet’s estranged sister Lily, her current boyfriend Jason, her old school friend Ellis, all of whom play a part in the drama. Juliet’s journey of discovery is about more than her grandparents – she learns about her family, her relationships, and about herself.

    There was so much I didn’t know about my grandparents. I’d known them only in their later years, seen them from the self-centred perspective of a child. Inside that letter were two people I’d never known, who I wanted to know, to bring those people to life in my memories, make my grandparents complete, something I should have done a long time ago.

    Inheritance of Secrets p125

    Who hasn’t had that realisation as an adult – that we need to move beyond the limited understandings of childhood, before we can appreciate our parents or grandparents, with flaws and all, as fully formed people who made choices in life? And don’t we all have to live with the consequences of our choices?

    This novel is a textured, absorbing thriller that ticked many boxes for me: a mystery from wartime Europe, a modern story line with a believable, sympathetic heroine, fast paced action and a satisfying emotional arc. A bonus: much of the modern day action takes place in Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia, settings not often seen in novels but which work wonderfully in this story.

    An Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins, April 2020.

    Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    The real stories of life after WWII – from the women of Australia: ‘The Women’s Pages’ by Victoria Purman

    I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.

    Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.

    It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.

    Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.

    In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.

    In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).

    While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.

    The Women’s Pages p363

    Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!

    As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.

    The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.

    The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
    Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer

    This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:

    I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.

    I want you to know we’re still here p3

    The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)

    In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.

    There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:

    The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.

    I want you to know we’re still here p23

    This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
    (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)

    There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:

    From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.

    I want you to know we’re still here p222

    For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.

    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.

  • Writing

    A small offering to lighten our days: my short story about magic

    These days of concern and self-isolation due to COVID-19 are strange times indeed. To lighten the mood, here is a little story I wrote, before the craziness got too crazy, for the March Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition.

    Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

    ‘While these visions did appear…’

    From my place in the wings, I can see Ella and her best friend Toni. Ella clutches the edge of the stage curtain, her jaw set with determination to not mess up her scene. Her parents are out there in the audience, their faces probably tight with worry. I know they’d had misgivings about the whole thing.

    On stage, Bottom leans back in Titania’s arms. His ass’s head wobbles precariously but stays in place. Titania rests her head on the cushion of soft ferns in the fairy bower.

    Ella had gasped when she’d first seen the set, hung with greenery to conjure a park, a woodland meadow. The play cast its magic over everything. In the dressing room, she’d looked into the mirror and squealed.

    ‘I’m a fairy!’

    She wears her yellow gown and fairy wings as if born to them. A long blonde wig completes the disguise, transforming snub nosed Ella into a fairy sprite. Even Rick—the handsomest boy in the school—is convincing as Bottom, the fool with a donkey head. It is all working.

    Now here is Ella’s cue. She bounces out on stage beside her fairy friends. Ella has just two words to say, and I know she won’t get them wrong.

     Peaseblossom calls, ‘Ready!’

    Moth and Mustardseed chorus, ‘And I!’

    Within minutes their scene is done and they all run off stage again, giggling and hugging each other.

    Ella spots me in the wings and rushes over, her round face one huge smile. She puts her arms around my waist and hops up and down, her excitement spilling over like a fizzy drink.

    ‘Shhh!’ I warn, but I can’t help smiling back. ‘You did great, both of you.’ I put my finger to my lips, and they quieten to watch the action until the play’s closing lines.

    I give them a gentle nudge.

    ‘Curtain call! Go and take your bow, girls.’

    Ella and Toni hold hands with the other fairies and bow to the audience, beaming. The applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. I blink away tears. When the curtains swish shut for the last time, the whole cast rattle off the stage together, breathless with joy.

    I wait with Ella and Toni until their parents find them. Ella’s dad is shaking his head. Oh no… Is he unhappy with Ella being in the play? I’d fought hard for the chance for Ella and Toni to take part. Does he still disapprove?

    Before I could speak, he takes my hand.

    ‘Thank you, Ms Roberts!’ he says. ‘What a wonderful night. It worried me it might be too much for Ella, up there on stage. I know the school hasn’t had special needs students in the play before. How can we thank you?’

    I grin. ‘Just look at their faces.’ I turn to Ella and Toni. The girls’ eyes shine as they grin back. They are still fairies, inside and out. ‘That’s thanks enough.’

  • Books and reading,  History

    A mix of tragedy and hope: ‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

    The Yield (shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize) introduces us to August, a young Wiradjuri woman from a fictional valley in NSW. August returns home when her beloved grandfather (‘Poppy’) dies, after she’d been living in England for some years. The reader quickly realises that August is something of a restless soul running away from – or searching for – several things, including the sorrow and guilt she experienced after the mysterious disappearance of her older sister Jedda, years ago.

    The author does not flinch from dealing with the troubling issues and problems that beset many indigenous communities around Australia. In doing so, she places them firmly within the context of inter-generational trauma, the fracturing of families, communities and culture that began with the colonisation of this country by the English just over two hundred years ago. August is dealing with her own childhood memories but also the hints of far bigger events that took place in and around her childhood home. Early in the book, she dreams about her grandfather speaking to her:

    …he was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too…There are few worse things than memory, yet fewer things better, he’d said. Be careful.

    The Yield p9

    This theme of memory is woven throughout the novel in several ways. While we never meet Poppy (Albert Gondiwindi) we are introduced to him through his book, a carefully compiled dictionary of lost words and phrases from the Wiradjuri language. This is such an effective device, bringing the reader as it does into his world view, touching on his own life experiences but also the history of white settlement of his country and the interactions between settlers and Wiradjuri. And his widow, August’s nana Elsie, tells August:

    There was a war here against the local people. In that war the biggest victim was the culture, you know?…Please don’t be a victim, Augie. It’s an easy road, that one…The land, the earth is the victim now – that needs an army, I reckon. She’s the one in real trouble.

    The Yield pp92, 93

    Certainly the valley is now under direct threat by a proposed tin mine that …slithered up like a snake – worse than a snake – ready to make a million, a billion or more for a couple of greedy mates. (p127)

    The place names in the novel’s fictional setting are a deliberate reminder of atrocities committed against indigenous people in the not too distant past: Massacre and Poisoned Waterhole Creek (both of which are real place names), Prosperous Mission, which is based on a real Aboriginal mission that operated in the 1880’s. There is also mention of the ‘homes’ to which Aboriginal children were taken after forcible removal from their parents; practices now known as the Stolen Generations.

    If in doubt about the extent or veracity of massacres and other atrocities, you may wish to look at the Colonial frontier massacres map of Australia, compiled by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities through University of Newcastle. It is a sobering website.

    Another thread running through the story is to do with the fictional Reverend Greenleaf, a Lutheran pastor of German heritage, who founded and ran Prosperous Mission in the 1800’s. During WWI he is the victim of anti-German sentiment and interred, and we read his impassioned plea for the welfare of the Aboriginal people of his district, foreseeing a grim future for them.

    All the disparate threads are brought together by the end of the novel and August is left reflecting on the changes brought about within herself. She thinks about her grandfather’s dictionary and the importance of their language:

    English had changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to say
    …I’m writing about the other time though, deep time. This is a big, big story, the big stuff goes on forever, time ropes and loops and is never straight, that’s the real story of time.

    The Yield pp306&2

    This is reminiscent of the reflections about time made by the Gay’wu Group of Women in their beautiful book Song Spirals. It prompted me to think again about the fascinating differences across human cultures, as well as the similarities.

    The Yield was published by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House Aust) in 2019. It is an accessible story with beautiful language and imagery. It asks some deep questions such as: is Australia mature enough to embrace all aspects of its history, both ancient and more recent?
    The Yield is a worthy contender for the 2020 Stella Prize.

    #2020StellaPrize #AussieAuthor20 #readthestella

  • Books and reading,  History

    Poverty, society and religion conspire: ‘No Small Shame’ by Christine Bell

    No Small Shame takes the reader into the world of emigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century: specifically a young woman, Mary O’Donnell, from Irish Catholic roots who travels across the world to Australia in 1914. Her father and that of her childhood friend Liam are miners from Ireland who emigrated to Scotland in the hope of finding work. Now, they are uprooting once again to work ‘down the pits’ in Wonthaggi, a coal mining region of Victoria.

    The author immerses us in the appalling poverty of these families and communities: the cold, cramped row houses in Scotland, the deaths of babies and children from diseases like diphtheria and pneumonia, the grinding work in the pits, the smell of chamber pots and unwashed underarms. It is not a romantic picture of the past which is just as well, because there is precious little romance to be had in the lives of people like the O’Donnells and the Merrilees, nor in the life of Mary’s friend Winnie, married off in her teens to a surly, uncaring man who takes her to live on a farm outside of town – if ‘live’ is the right word here. ‘Survive’ is probably more accurate.

    Despite their unpromising start in life, Mary and Liam both dream of better things. Mary nurtures her secret love for the boy she grew up with, but her feelings don’t seem to be reciprocated. All Liam cares about is getting away from his family and the seemingly inevitable work in the mine with his father. he wants to buy a good house and have money to spend. To ‘be his own man.’ And his growing frustration leads him into a life of drink.

    Mary tries to muster dignity and defiance against everything that is ranged against her: her poverty, her employer, the religious and social strictures of the day, the unbending anger and resentment of her mother, her misplaced love and loyalty to an undeserving man. She finds herself in a situation all too common at that time, with a lack of agency a reality for so many women. It is a stark portrayal of the transactional nature of a loveless marriage:

    But life for them was never meant to be more than what it was. Even marriage didn’t mean you had to be happy every bloody minute of every bloody day.

    No Small Shame p337

    The author vividly illustrates how religious and social hypocrisies impacted unfairly on women, who were expected to uphold standards of virtue and responsibility that some men seemed to avoid. The edicts of church and community left no room for mistakes, or allowance for people to change.

    On top of all of this, the world is plunged into war which further strains families and communities to breaking point. Once the survivors return home, we see the cruel negligence of all who’d suffered in the fight for ‘King and Country.’ (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I struggle with ANZAC Day commemorations each year – knowing that while our leaders mouth platitudes about ‘Lest We Forget’, the physical and mental health, and the family and financial well-being of returned service people, is still shockingly neglected.)

    Then the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic hits – which to a reader in 2020, echoes the panic and fear about the latest virus now sweeping the world.

    This might sound like No Small Shame is a litany of misery. There is sadness, despair and anger, yes. But the author shows us Mary’s growing internal defiance and her arguments with herself. The narrative is close third person, so the reader is able to hear Mary’s thoughts as well as watch her actions. Her voice in the novel is lovely – full of idioms of the day, especially of the working class Irish Catholic community in which she is placed. Mary develops a stronger sense of independence, a realisation that she must stand on her own two feet. She also has an ironic, humorous bent which helps to soften some of the more difficult aspects of life:

    With thousands of men gone to the front, she’d not reckoned on the Government decreeing it not proper for women to take over the jobs of men. What was the big call for women in Australia? Socks! Socks and pyjamas, thank you. Don’t trouble yourself to fill a real job, just sew and knit a bit! It made her wonder if women struggling in the bush to keep sheep alive in the drought, and bringing in a harvest with their menfolk away, knew they ought not to be doing ‘men’s’ work.

    No Small Shame, p197

    By the novel’s end, Mary has come to an acceptance of who she is and what she deserves in life, and is taking steps to change her situation for the better:

    Placid, good, gentle Julia. The type of wife and mother she could never be. She’d always be one to question the justice, or the lack.

    No Small Shame, p338

    This is Christine Bell’s debut novel for adults, though she has published many works of short fiction for both adults and children, and has also written a Young Adult manuscript. I hope she continues to write stories like this one, which brings history to life and also tells us important things about our own times.

    No Small Shame will be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) on 1 April 2020. My thanks to Holly for an advance reader copy.

  • Life: bits and pieces

    When happenstance leads to your happy place

    Today I was listening to episode 1 of a brand new podcast called AusFolkus, which will explore the people and stories behind Australian folk music and dance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is presented and recorded by my husband, Andy Busuttil from Blue Mountain Sound studio) The podcast guest chatting with Andy was Gary Dawson, who has been participating in and teaching dances from the Balkans region for fifty years.

    I was intrigued and amused to hear him relate the story of how, as a young university student, he stumbled upon folk dancing one night, when he and a few mates were wandering around Sydney, looking for something to do. They happened upon some ‘interesting music’, as he recalls it, wafting out from a building. Deciding to investigate, they were invited to join in. That was it for Gary. He was hooked, and went on to explore the eccentric rhythms, exciting music and colourful energetic dances from the Balkans, and eventually to become one of Australia’s most respected and loved folk dance teachers.

    This anecdote got me thinking about the way ‘happenstance’ can knock us off a trajectory, or start a new one. A new passion, as for Gary, or a new career, love affair, favourite travel destination, even a brand new country to live in. There are so many ‘sliding door’ moments in life. Have you ever stopped to consider all the ‘what ifs’ that brought you to where you are today? Those split seconds where you might have chosen differently, got off at an earlier bus stop, missed a flight or train, or not taken a phone call. We can never know what the outcome might have been had we done it differently, of course.

    And how wonderful when happenstance leads you to something that changes your life in a truly positive way, introducing you to a fulfilling and absorbing new pastime or life path. When you land in your happy place, as Gary did.

    Dance is one of those activities that appear across all cultures, because it allows us to express ourselves and experience the joy of movement. Our bodies were created to move, to express, to feel joy and exhilaration. The colours, the traditions, the music and the rhythms of dances from around the world show us that dance is one of the ways we can be comfortable in our human bodies.

    Of course, your happy place may be reading, or writing stories, or horse riding. You might buzz from creating a garden, or painting one, or sculpting a native animal. Maybe creating a meal to die for is your thing. It hardly matters what it is that takes you there. We all need a happy place to recharge and to get in touch with what makes us, us.

    And if happenstance is what connected you with your thing in the first place, so much the more magical.


    Please do let me know in the comments if happenstance has happened to you. I’d love to hear your story.

    And, if you are interested in folk music and dance and the community of people who make it happen, do have a listen to the AusFolkus podcast.