• Books and reading

    When a book surprises: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

    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.

  • Books and reading

    A sad and haunting tale of our near futures: ‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

    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

  • Books and reading,  History

    Discovering a new favourite author: Tea Cooper

    The Woman in the Green Dress (Pub 2019 by HQ Fiction) is Tea Cooper’s latest historical fiction and the first by her that I have read. I enjoyed it very much and I’m putting her on my ‘favourite authors’ list – which is, I might add, rather long. It’s always a pleasure to discover a ‘new’ author especially when they have written lots of other books, so there are plenty of others to enjoy. I’m not at all sure why I’d not discovered this author before now!

    The reason I picked up this particular novel was its setting, both time and place. It is a dual narrative / dual timeline novel, with two interweaving stories that play out separately, but of course overlap at crucial moments – to say any more would be to give spoilers so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I particularly enjoy dual time frame novels. There’s something about them that when done well, brings the past more fully into the present.

    There are two main settings in this book: Mogo Creek, a remote tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River, and Sydney. The dual time settings are the mid nineteenth century, and the (slightly more modern) early twentieth century – just after WWI draws to its bloody conclusion. I was attracted to the Hawkesbury setting because it is where my own roots lie, though my ancestors settled in the more ‘tameable’ farming land around Windsor and Richmond. For readers of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (one of my all-time favourite and most admired historical fiction novels) Mogo Creek is not too far from the area explored in that book.

    There are two protagonists: Della, in the 1853 story, and Fleur, who we meet in the novel’s opening, in 1918. Fleur is an ordinary English woman who lost her parents in the bombing of London during the war. Added to that, her husband Hugh, whom she married in a hasty ceremony just before he went off to fight, is reported as killed in action – but Fleur refuses to believe it. After all, there has been no official telegram, no parcel of his personal items sent to her. Her life turns a somersault when she is informed that Hugh has left her a substantial fortune and parcels of land – in far off Australia. Not a particularly adventurous woman, Fleur is astonished to find herself on a ship bound for Australia. She is convinced she can ‘sort out the misunderstanding’, return to England and wait for Hugh.

    In this she is proven wrong. She finds herself trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, but obstacles present themselves. Eventually she travels to Mogo Creek herself and meets a strange old man there. She discovers other clues in the boarded up Curio Shop of Wonders, a Sydney store owned by Hugh’s family for many years.

    Gradually we come to see how Fleur’s story overlaps with Della’s. Della is a taxidermist, an unusual occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century. Della is sympathetic to the Aboriginal people she knows – the Darkinjung of the upper Hawkesbury – and distressed to learn of brutal raids and attacks against them by some white settlers and also by the collectors of wildlife ‘specimens’ for her aunt’s store in Sydney – the very same Curio Shop that puzzles Fleur in the later timeline. I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney across the two timelines, as well as the more rugged parts of the Hawkesbury river and its valleys. The characters of Fleur and Della are both very likeable and we see how they each change as the novel progresses.

    A motif throughout the novel is the opal, which in the mid nineteenth century garnered a reputation as a stone that brought bad luck to its owners. It was interesting to read of the very beginnings of the opal industry in Australia as it is now an iconic Australian gemstone, and (as far as I know) it no longer brings bad luck!

    Sometimes in dual narrative stories, the reader needs to suspend disbelief a little at the neat way the stories get tied together. In The Woman in the Green Dress, the clues are planted throughout, resulting in a climax and resolution that feels satisfying and believable. I enjoyed this novel and have already added another of Tea Cooper’s books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Who are the savages?

    Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.

    Published by Ventura Press 2019.

    I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?

    The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.

    It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.

    At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:

    …why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.

    Paris Savages p.238

    Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.

    Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.

    Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:

    I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….

    …I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.

    Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285

    This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.

    Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.

    #AWWchallenge

  • Books and reading

    The art of memoir: ‘The Girls’ by Chloe Higgins

    Can a book be both raw and nuanced? After reading The Girls, I believe it can. This ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ tells what happened to Chloe and her family after her two younger sisters (‘the girls’ of the title) were killed in a car crash when Chloe was 17 years old. Chloe and her mother were at home because Chloe was studying for her high school exams. Her father, who had been driving, sustained only minor injuries and could never remember or understand what had happened to cause the accident that killed his two daughters. Understandably, he suffered from crippling guilt and confusion as a result.

    The author tells the story from many different time periods, braiding each subtly into the narrative, to trace the to-and-fro of loss. Over the thirteen years between the accident and the publication of this, her first book, Chloe Higgins tried out different versions of life as she experimented with alcohol, drugs, sex work, overseas travel, psychiatric treatment…all while ‘trying to figure out how to have healthy adult relationships with these two people {her parents}, within the context of our shared grief and vastly different world views.’ (The Girls, p.306)

    The rawness of this work comes from her honesty in describing aspects of her life, thoughts, relationships and behaviours that are difficult, challenging, sometimes confronting. She says in her author’s note:

    But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only ones struggling with these feelings…Publishing this book is about stepping out of my shame, to speak publicly.

    The Girls, pp.305-306

    The nuance is in the delicate way the author navigates between the shocking or difficult, and the ordinariness of everyday life. She comes to learn that there is peace and beauty to be found in routines, even in the ritualistation of the day-to-day. Chloe starts to observe and recognise the things that keep her healthy: a good dose of quiet ‘alone time’ each day, time to write and read, exercise, friends, travel, nature, freedom. Simple but essential components of a ‘good life.’ I would agree – these are essential for me as well.

    Her contemplation and exploration of grief is at times visceral:
    “Grief stains the body.’ (p.150)
    “This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak.” (p. 131)

    Then, years later, she looks at a photo of the accident site and realises:

    ‘That is exactly what happened: this is the place on the road where the car, my sisters inside, burst into flames…I am almost thirty-one. I have been putting off this remembering for thirteen years, and I am terrified.’ (p.286)

    But she perseveres, asking for and receiving photos, memories and videos of her sisters, of the whole family of five at different ages before the accident, and suddenly :

    ‘For the first time in more than a decade, I am beginning to see them as three-dimensional humans. I see their bodies moving, hear the sounds of their voices, rather than experiencing them only as the flat, two-dimensional faces of their funeral memorial card.’ (291)

    This is a beautiful, honest, sometimes harrowing but ultimately hopeful account of a journey through loss and deep sorrow, the story of a young woman trying to figure all that out while also discovering what kind of life she will live. A perfect book for parents trying to understand the challenges that so often face young adults, and for young people to know that no, they are not alone.

    Here is a short video of Chloe talking about her book:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR1r1zSUhHo

    Published by Picador, 2019

  • 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,  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

    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.