Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (2019, Vintage Australia) is a novel which tells several stories over multiple timelines. All of them are interlinked by place: Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The island today is known for its wildlife, pristine beaches, beautiful scenery, a thriving arts scene and tourism. In the time of the earliest story told by Molly Murn in the book, the1820’s, it was a place with a darker, bloodier purpose—sealing.
We learn about the white men, who gravitated to the island to hunt seals for the lucrative skin trade, and the Aboriginal women from the mainland and Tasmania who lived with them. The author wrote that she wanted to tell the story of the women in particular because their history is in large part, lost to time. Most, if not all of those indigenous women were taken against their will and lived as slaves. They were stolen for the obvious reasons—white women being in short supply in the colony at the time, especially in such remote locations—but also because of their skills in hunting and skinning the seals which gathered around the waters and beaches of the island. Murn’s narrative allows the reader to imagine the brutalities to which these women were subjected, but we also get glimpses of their strength and the skills they possessed.
Another plotline in the novel is set in the present-day and involves a family of two sisters, Pearl and Lucy, who with their mother Diana, their husbands and children, come together on the island to mourn the death of their grandmother, Nell. We learn of their personal struggles, and the role played by Kangaroo Island in their lives.
It was Nell who had shown Pearl the quiet private things of her childhood island. Not the ‘grand swathes’,as Diana mockingly called Nell’s constant imparting of local history, but the small gleaming things.p.133
And we learn of Nell’s own history. Nell was born and raised on the island, and her first love was Sol, a boy from the farm next to Nell’s family. Sol is Aboriginal. When Nell falls pregnant she is sent away to Adelaide to have the baby—and her son is taken away for adoption. Her parents insist on this not just because of Nell’s youth, but also because they cannot live with the shame of their daughter bearing a mixed race child. Such were the attitudes of the time. This loss haunts Nell for the rest of her life. Its effects are felt by the children she has later, her daughters who mourn her death in their different ways.
I love fiction with dual or multiple timelines. Novels like this allow me to look at a place, familiar in our own time, through a different lens. I can get a deeper sense of the way in which ‘history’ is never just in the past—it’s tendrils can be seen and felt in our own time, if we are open to that.
Molly Murn’s novel is beautifully written, imbued with a deep sense of place and poetry.
I’ve not yet been to Kangaroo Island. This novel makes me want to visit. And while I’m there, to watch out for the small gleaming things.
Have you been prompted to visit a place because of a novel you have read about it? Let me know in the comments.
We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
My ‘Australian Writers’ Centre’ Furious Fiction entry for February. The parameters for that month were: 500 words or less; the first sentence must have three words only; there had to be a candle; and a “first” of some sort in the story.
Here’s my effort:
THREE by Denise Newton
“Three, three, three!” Lily punctuated each word with a clap. She skipped around the room, her pink tulle skirt fanning out around chubby knees.
The chant was becoming annoying. Sandra tried to breathe through her irritation. Like in yoga: breathe… in…and… out. Mustering patience. Birthdays were thrilling when you were turning three. When had she stopped being excited by them? She couldn’t remember. She put the third candle on top of the pink icing and placed the tiny ballerina in the centre of the cake.
“There, what do you think?”
Lily executed a clumsy pirouette, hands fluttering. “Beautiful, Mummy!”
Sandra started to say, “Let’s show Daddy…” but stopped, bit back the words in time. That familiar swooping inside. Like on a scary ride at the funfair, without the fun. This was another of those hideous “firsts” that had to be endured for a year. An entire, damnable year. And then another, and another, and another…
She glanced at her mother, seated at the table. Eleanor was watching her granddaughter dance her excitement across the kitchen. There was a fond smile on her lips and a tiny furrow between her brows. Sandra arranged her own face into a matching smile.
Her mother wasn’t fooled. “All right, love?” she said.
Sandra nodded. Her smile widened, cracked, dissolved. The tears came.
“Damn!” She tried hard to swallow them, force them away. They were disobedient, not to be stopped. They tickled as they ran down past her nose. She wiped her cheek with the back of one hand, furious with herself.
“It’s to be expected, you know.” Her mother’s voice was soft. “Times like this, birthdays and anniversaries. They’ll be hard for a while.”
Sandra gave a small sigh. “I suppose so.” She looked at Lily, who was still twirling. “You’ll make yourself dizzy, Lil.”
Lily stopped mid-turn, breathless, laughing up at her. “It’s fun!”
“It looks fun.” Sandra attempted another smile. “Come on, help me make the fairy bread. Everyone’ll be here soon.”
Together they buttered bread. Lily hummed as she shook the ‘hundreds and thousands’ container, sprinkling the tiny coloured pebbles over each slice. Every now and then a rush of them spilled out, forming a little kaleidoscopic mound, stuck to the butter. Lily squeaked in delight each time. Sandra cut the fairy bread into triangles and arranged them on a plate.
The smell of the fresh, buttered bread, the sugar in the toppings, the cake…The scene transported her to when she was a small girl, helping her mother prepare for a birthday party. The fizzy excitement. It was all so real.
She looked at Lily, giving her a proper smile this time.
“Come on, Lil. Let’s put up the balloons.”
As she passed the kitchen dresser, she touched the photo of Dan in its frame, and knew they’d be OK
Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.
A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.
There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.
The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.
As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:
It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.
Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here: